The Boneyard: Sharpening Your Literary Blade

By Daniel Ford and Sean Tuohy

Daniel: So lately, whether we like a book or movie, we can usually find a moment, stretch of dialogue, or character that we remember fondly. I recently re-sold you on a couple of books that you gave up on, and you always suggest a movie I should see even if it's true for that one good thing.

My question is, are we a product of consuming so much content we can identify something to critique in everything or are we doing this because we're born storytellers and like seeing how the sausage is made?

Sean: It's a mix. We are born storytellers, yes, but that is a talent that has to be skilled and shaped and the only way we can do that is by consuming content.

Think of a writer's mind like a blade. It starts out dull and unable to slice butter. The blade has to be sharpened over time to be used properly. So when we are younger learn and sharpen our mind.

As we get old the blade becomes dull from use. We have to sharpen it back up. That is why any writer worth a damn is reading and writing all the time. They are always working on the craft.

For every hour you spend writing you need to spend another hour reading.

Daniel: Wow, I love everything about what you just said.

Makes writing the headline for this chain easy. 

And you're right. I never feel like I'm slacking off when I'm reading or watching something. It's research in a lot of ways. And everything, including the crap, should make you excited about your own work.

Take a show like "Rectify." I'm sure that not many people have even heard of it. It's about a man who is let off death row after spending most of his adult life there. The show follows him as he tries to put back together his existence. It's so quiet and subtle at times it feels like I'm invading these characters privacy (much like the experience you had with "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"). After watching a couple of episodes, I never feel like I'm wasting my time. I soak in how the characters interact with each other, why the director chose one angle over another, or how the plot comes together slowly like a stew. 

Same goes for a novel. Even if I'm slogging through it, I learn things that I can apply to my own work. Every book and movie offers a lesson, so it's important to keep a notebook around whenever you're binging watching or reading. 

Sean: 100% every form of content—book, movie, poem—offers some insight into the creative mind. From the worse film to the best novel, you are going to learn something.

I should keep a notebook handy. That would be really helpful. How many times have you thought "great idea" and then forgot it about an hour later?

I have recently started keeping a notebook at my desk at work and when I think of scene, some dialog, or a log line I write it down. Some times I forget what I wrote down and when I look thought the book I surprise myself with something.

Daniel: That happens to me too often sadly. Although the notebook feature on the iPhone has saved my bacon more than a time or two.

We've talked about this, but ideas tend to hit me right before I pass out for the night. Sometimes I'll start teasing out an idea, get something I really like, and then fall asleep. Typically I can retain it that morning in some form, but it's not as pure. There’s nothing more soul crushing than a lost idea, especially a good one.

Sean: Agreed, nothing more soul crushing then losing an idea. You strain to get it back but nothing happens. A feeling I love is when you have a long-standing idea that would never work but then some happens and it clicks. It is brilliant.

I've had long standing ideas that never worked out. Something was missing. It felt hollow and small. But then something pops into my head and the light bulb just pops.

Have you thought about leaving the notepad next to the bed? Just flip over and write down the idea. A word or phrase that you can review in the morning.

Daniel: Oh, it's there. Sometimes I don't have the energy to reach over and grab it.

Keep those ideas around. Maybe it didn't work for that particular project, but it could end up being perfect for a project down the line. Kill your darlings, but keep their corpses around! 

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